The PM, his health and the Sod It principle

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Towards the end of the last war, Winston Churchill's son Randolph was holed up in what was until recently Yugoslavia with Evelyn Waugh and the second Lord Birkenhead. He was proving noisy, drunken and argumentative. To try to secure some peace and quiet for themselves, Waugh and Birkenhead bet him £10 each that he could not read the Bible in a fortnight. Churchill accepted the bet. After a few hours he pronounced:

Towards the end of the last war, Winston Churchill's son Randolph was holed up in what was until recently Yugoslavia with Evelyn Waugh and the second Lord Birkenhead. He was proving noisy, drunken and argumentative. To try to secure some peace and quiet for themselves, Waugh and Birkenhead bet him £10 each that he could not read the Bible in a fortnight. Churchill accepted the bet. After a few hours he pronounced:

"This book is extremely well written. Why has it not been brought to my attention before?"

After some days, he could be heard saying from time to time, in tones of awed admiration: "God, isn't God a shit."

Eventually a combination of Leviticus and strong drink proved too much for him and he lost his bet. But it was clear that, in the matter of natural disasters, the Lord of Hosts had form as long as your arm. If Churchill had persisted in his reading, he would have come upon great floods, the parting of the Red Sea, Job being afflicted by boils and an unoffending housewife being turned into a pillar of salt, to say nothing of numerous famines, pestilences and plagues.

It is not perhaps surprising that the Asian floods caused Fleet Street's Finest as much theological difficulty as they did, for the Scriptures, and in particular the Old Testament, are not read as widely as they once were; while the problem of suffering, which has engaged the attention of learned divines for centuries, evidently came as a surprising thought to the National Union of Columnists and Opinion Operatives.

The puzzlement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is more surprising. As William Whitelaw once remarked of his predecessor, Robert Runcie, who was being attacked by somebody or other in the Conservative Party: "The Archbishop of Canterbury is a very religious man." So is Dr Williams likewise. It is clear he did not say what The Sunday Telegraph misleadingly claimed he said in the same paper: that his belief in God was under threat. But it is not entirely clear what the Archbishop was saying, either. His liking for hesitancy and qualification is no doubt admirable in an age which demands glib answers to everything. But there are still times when the hungry sheep want to be fed.

If the Almighty was clearly present in the terrible events of the last weeks, where was our Prime Minister? Hitherto no natural disaster could be deemed to have run its course without the personal intercession of Mr Tony Blair. We must be fair to Mr Blair, as I always try to be. He did not initiate this approach to public events. The pioneer was Margaret Thatcher.

In the 1980s Mrs Thatcher seemed to take a pride in arriving at the scene of a disaster well before any members of the Royal Family had been able to make their own arrangements to turn up, always assuming, of course, that they had intended to do so in the first place. It was rumoured that the then Prime Minister's agility in diving into the official car was the cause of some annoyance at the Palace; with good reason. Indeed, so flagrant did her behaviour become that I thought of having some engraved medical bracelets manufactured for distribution to my friends, saying: "In the case of accident or serious injury, I do not wish to be visited by Margaret Thatcher."

There is, I feel - I may be wrong - less risk of such a visit from Mr Blair. That is because, like Sir David Frost, he goes for the big names. Nor does he specialise so much in the hospital visit, where Harold Wilson was assiduous too, as in the obituarist's tribute: most of all, to Princess Diana in 1997, but also to Jill Dando, John Peel, George Harrison and that corrupt old mafioso Frank Sinatra, who had no connection whatever with this country.

The people at No 10 say: why should the Prime Minister have put himself in the firing line for a lot of flak from you boys about coming back from Egypt to exploit a tragedy? We all know what you would have written, and so does he. Who needs it? The short answer is that such delicate considerations have never influenced Mr Blair's conduct in the past. Indeed, his entire approach has been dictated by a certain ruthless absence of good taste. He does not care what the high-minded may think of him.

Thus there are editors and columnists in the Prig Press (though not this columnist) who are aggrieved at their neglect by Mr Blair. They feel excluded, shut out. They are, they consider, his real friends. Alas! He will not listen to them. He much prefers to flatter journalists from Mr Rupert Murdoch's papers and from the Daily Mail; in much the same way as, towards the beginning of his first term, he sucked up to Vere Rothermere and David English of the Mail until they were both unexpectedly called to a Better Place. Mr Blair has never given a jot or even a tittle for enlightened opinion; whereas Mr Gordon Brown clearly still does.

We can therefore safely dismiss the notion that Mr Blair was suddenly stricken by an attack of the finer feelings. In the past, it would have taken a heavy armoured vehicle to restrain him from turning a well-phrased tribute in the television studio. It may be he has simply had enough. It may be the Sod It principle at work. Mr Blair does not enjoy contemplation. What he likes is physical activity, tennis and what-have-you. Perhaps he was having a good time in Egypt, as usual at someone else's expense, and saw no reason to interrupt his holiday when he could do no real good back in Blighty.

But it may be again that he really was "exhausted", as at one point No 10, in his absence, said he was. The people around Mr Blair are not - how can one put this? - exactly noted for their candour. So their admission that the Prime Minister was suffering from exhaustion must count as quite a big one. It would have been quite a big admission for the entourage of any national leader to make.

It would have been bigger still if he had been, not tired, but ill. We know that the Prime Minister has something the matter with his heart. It does not appear to be very serious - lots of people suffer from it - but he would clearly prefer not to be troubled by it at all. In his absence, the British people have behaved in a manner reminiscent of Little Jack Horner:

"He put in his thumb, and he took out a plum,
And said: 'What a good boy am I!'"

If I were Mr Blair, however, I should be keeping an eye on another Jack, Mr Jack Straw, who has had to revise the casualty lists upwards following the belated return to these shores of the Prime Minister. Mr Straw has been left out on a limb rather, to shift as best he can.

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